Sunday, April 7, 2024


One of the first books I can remember reading was Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. From then until now I've been drawn to read about piracy, especially in its so-called "golden age," the 17th and early 18th centuries. I resist Jack Sparrow, preferring history or at least historical fiction. Thus I enjoyed this review of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724).
It is perhaps the most influential book on pirates ever to have been written, the inspiration for never-ending tales of treasure and terror on the high seas. Yet the identity of its author remains a mystery. Three hundred years ago, in 1724, the pseudonymous author “Captain Charles Johnson” published a pair of volumes under the hefty title A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates.

They gathered together the scandalous biographies of villains such as John “Calico Jack” Rackham and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, and were an immediate success – running to a fourth, much-expanded edition in only two years. In the centuries since, the book has served as the source text for many more ­dastardly characters, stalking the pages of J M Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island’s Israel Hands is even named after a figure from the General History, Blackbeard’s second-in-command). ....

Use the word “pirate” today, however, and everyone will know what you’re talking about: sailors in striped rags, roving the seven seas in search of plunder. .... Johnson’s General History, even though it only tackles the 30-odd years leading up to 1724, casts a long shadow across them all – firing the imagination and giving us popular tropes such as walking the plank, buried treasure, the faux-heroic “pirate’s code”, and the skull-and-crossbones of the Jolly Roger (“a black Ensign, with a white Death’s Head in the Middle of it”). ....

The romance of such tales is obvious, but it’s not all derring-do. There is plenty of horrendous testimony of torture and rape. The verifiable stories in the General History don’t shy away from this, drawing their readers in with the kind of transfixed horror that true-crime fans will understand. Underlying it all is the same, unsettling issue: what do you do with the fact that lionising pirates means celebrating people who were essentially evil?

Johnson gets around this by serving up their downfalls as cautionary tales. ....

He embellishes his sources, transforming his subjects from flat criminals into figures of legend and, in the process, giving their villainy a kind of theatrical charm. By the time we reach Blackbeard – named for the “large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightened America more than any Comet” – we are hearing cartoonish stories of his “mischievous Frolicks”. Johnson writes that he once shot two of his crew unprompted, claiming, “if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was”. ....

While the General History may have been the high-water mark of pirate-mania in Britain, actual piracy was facing a turning point in the Caribbean. In 1718, 11 pirates were marooned on a Caribbean island. When word reached Woodes Rogers, the new governor of the British settlement of Nassau (hitherto a pirate stronghold; today the capital of the Bahamas), he sent a ship to pick them up. Ten were hanged on their return, one crying out from the scaffold: “I do heartily repent; I repent I had not done more Mischief, and that we did not cut the Throats of them that took us, and I am extremely sorry that you an’t all hang, as well as we!”

You can understand that this didn’t win over the crowd in Nassau, who had been dealing for decades with a veritable occupation by buccaneers. The so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” would peter out in the coming years. .... (more)
The book can be found in various formats here.

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